Entrepreneurship@BU Newsletter: May 2012

EMolander WebExpert Insight

Entrepreneurship Cannot Be Taught, But It Can Be Learned

Erik Molander, ITEC Executive-in-Residence & Lecturer


To peek into the window that holds the soul of every entrepreneur I encounter, I use one question. While some may think it’s disarmingly direct it has always allowed me to gauge the desired outcome and degree of dedication being a true entrepreneur.  I recall asking Sandra this question not too long ago. She was a sophomore seeking advice on her academic plan for her Junior year and she was quite taken aback by my question. Curious what that question is? “Why do you want to be the boss?”

Sandra’s answer was particularly deep and insightful.  After she shared her thoughts with me, she turned around and posed an equally direct question: “Why should I study entrepreneurship at BU?” I have to admit, I really enjoy students with moxie.  My answer, “That depends on you.  Would you prefer to read about entrepreneurs, listen to a talk about it or roll up your sleeves and be an entrepreneur?” She told me, “I’d rather do it,” And that’s when I knew she’d come to the right place.

Is There A Secret Formula For Entrepreneurial Success?

Amazon has dozens of books that claim to be the secret formula for entrepreneurial success.  They are all based upon a significant false premise.  The entrepreneur will never face the same set of challenges, opportunities and circumstances as the author.  Every new business venture is fresh and original – it has never been done exactly this way before.  We don’t teach entrepreneurship as if it were calculus.  We teach our aspiring entrepreneurs the first principles, latest techniques, and processes to experiment and to be able to adapt with grace and flexibility.

Since 2004, BU’s School of Management has focused on experiential learning as the pillar of our Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Concentration. Experiential learning provides students with the ability to learn by doing.  Students engage in a variety of entrepreneurial ventures ranging from consulting projects with local start-ups, compete with other teams in business simulations and prototype their businesses in our classes.

Our research has identified three key reasons for the effectiveness of our approach to entrepreneurship education. Experiential learning:

  1. Reinforces positive entrepreneurial behaviors
  2. Has a greater impact on true learning
  3. Leads to greater self-efficacy

1. Reinforces Positive Entrepreneurial Behaviors

Entrepreneurs face challenges that are different than other business owners.  Early in their education we begin to reinforce the personal characteristics that are necessary for success as an entrepreneur.  It’s critical to reinforce the processes and attitudes associated with being able to sense and evaluate opportunities.  A student can learn the need-finding process but if she doesn’t have an exploratory attitude she won’t be effective.  The sword will forever remain in the case.  Experiential learning is essential to inculcating the entrepreneur with the following personal traits:

  • Tolerance for Ambiguity
  • Inductive Reasoning and Experimentation
  • Teamwork
  • Perseverance

2. Has a Greater Impact on True Learning

Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I will remember. There’s solid evidence that higher levels of recall and use are found when individuals are engaged in an actual experience…not just hearing about it.  Our experience has demonstrated that students have found this style of instruction to be more relevant because it is deeply personalized. Direct experiences provide knowledge in context and students remember the insights learned much longer.  Eight years after we began using a business simulation called: MikesBikes, our class was still able to discuss in detail their key decisions and learning from the simulation.  Clearly the knowledge gained was deeply internalized because it is such a sensory experience.

In addition, experiential learning has significantly higher levels of reflection.  In a classroom environment, professors often tightly program the lesson to lead students to the big aha moments.  In experiential learning, random events lead to unpredictable outcomes.  Stuff happens.  The students then have to do their own root cause analysis, not just replicate the textbook solution.   This leads them to define new approaches (theory) and create effective experiments to solve the problem.  Experiential learning helps them to synthesize their experiences into a new outlook and framework.

Leads to Greater Self-efficacy

Self-efficacy is the individual’s belief in how well they can perform in a prospective situation.  Since self-efficacy is based upon the student’s experiences and is distinguished from self-confidence, it can only originate from actual experiences.  Therefore, a student may exude self-confidence but have no legitimate basis for their beliefs.  Since research shows that self-efficacy leads to a significant improvement in performance, using experiential learning is critical for entrepreneurs to improve their skills.

There have been a number of surprising results from experiential learning. We’ve learned that this type of learning help student survive rejection.  They know that they’ve been successful in the past, it will happen again, perhaps just not at this moment.  This leads to the second surprising result, experiential learning leads to greater perseverance in the face of obstacles.  Having overcome obstacles in the past, they are more willing to search for solutions.

Our laboratory is the marketplace.  When we get our students off-campus into the messy, oftentimes-contradictory laboratory of the real world they learn to experiment and persist.  As professors, we find a greater number of and more relevant “teachable moments.”

We are always looking for additional ways to provide our students with real world learning experiences.  If you are running a start-up and need support with a goal or can identify a business opportunity requiring support from a team of student, please contact me, Erik Molander, directly by email: Molander@bu.edu or phone 617-358-5864.

About Erik Molander

Erik Molander is an Executive-In-Residence and lecturer who teaches Entrepreneurship and Strategy at Boston University. He serves as faculty advisor to the MBA Consulting Community and Undergraduate Entrepreneurship students. The focus of his current research is on the Creative Economy and emerging business models. Erik has over 30 years of experience in corporate finance, strategy and innovation both as a corporate executive and consultant with top tier strategy consulting firms.

Prior to joining Boston University he was an executive at CSX Corporation and McCormick and had an extensive consulting career at the Mitchell Madison Group, Adventis and Strategic Growth. He has consulted to leading firms in the high technology sector with a particular focus on semiconductors, telecommunications, industrial automation and consumer electronics. Erik has taught Corporate Finance, Strategy, Global Management and Innovation at the Johns Hopkins University, Boston College and the University of New Hampshire. Erik is a Managing Partner at Mentor Capital Partners, an investing banking firm focused on serving early stage firms. He has earned a BA and MA in International Relations with a focus on International Finance from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Post Your Comment